It's push-button war in the board room as computer displays go fancy

Robert Widener puts on an unusual magic show. With his wand of technical know-how, he turns subdued, bleak corporate board rooms into modern communications centers.

Zap! Rainier National Bank in Seattle has a board room with slide projectors and built-in screens.

Zing! The management of the National Bank of Mexico (Banamex) can review its meetings by video and produce business graphs by computer.

For the past 15 years, Mr. Widener's career has been helping management toss tons of paper work into the nearest trash bin with audiovisual techniques. But just recently he established a company that does it by computer -- Intelligence Interlink Corporation, New York. Widener's specialty is designing corporate "war rooms" -- the place where executives put their heads together and churn out competitive strategy.

A report last mongth from International Resource Development Inc., a marketing research firm, listed 125 "electronic board rooms" in the nation. Of these, widener has designed 70. He says hsi is the only company that will put audio-visual equipment, computer graphics, and decor all together for a room. Otherwise, "it's done by subcontracting."

His latest creation is a war room and president's office at Banamex, in Mexico City. The project begain in 1979 when the bank's president, Ruben Aguilar, began looking for more-efficient ways to manage his board meetings.

Now, when Mr. Aguilar runs his meetings he can sit in a stuffed leather swivel chair and have the operations of the room at his finger tips. Touch a certain command appearing on the 19-inc video displays screen and the lights dim , the draperies close, the wood paneling covering the front wall rolls back to reveal a huge screen, 5 feet high by 15 feet.

Work has begun. His colleagues stare at the screen, examining three charts. In the middle is a chart on bank reserves, comparing figures for the previous month, the same month last year, and last December. December is crucial, because that is when the money supply in Mexico gets rejuvenated. To the left is a chart showing money supply over the same two-year span, and to the right is a chart on interest rates, also covering the same time period. The charts, representing about 288 statistical series, can be read at a glance. All the charts come from slides, projected behind the screen and appearing in high-resolution color.

Notice the distinct lack of paper shuffling, the absence of confused faces trying to make out lengthy financial reports, the relief because no irritated manager is trying to get everyone on the same page at once.

Telling the financial story with graphs instead of pages of reports is making a lot more sense to executives these days. Mr. Aguilar's graphs come from CompuChrome a stand-alone graphics computer with a 19-inch video display included in Mr. Widener's latest war rooms. Compuhas been on the market only about a year.

Aguilar has a CompuChrome in his office at the bank Again, by just touching the screen he can get a "menu" of graph formats at any time of day or night. Or , by touching the screen again (there is no traditional keyboard), he can put in data and make a seven-color graph. (Widener limits the color choice to seven because he says more colors are confusing.) Mr. Aguilar can change the chart if he wants, and he can ask the computer to produce crisp 8-by-10-inc color prints in seconds, or slides. He can enter more data and ask the computer: What if such and such changed next year, then what would our reserves look like? The graph would show him.

Hugo Ramos, in charge of the computers and audiovisual equipment at the bank, says the best thing about CompuChrome are that "it stands alone; it doesn't break down easily; it takes 10 minutes to learn how to use; and the president likes it."

Widener got into the business by designing "marketing rooms," where corporations could present their products. In the late '60s he equipped such rooms with TV, video, and cassettes; film and slide projectors; reel-to-reel tapes; special lighting; microphones installed in ceilings; and leather chairs on casters accompanied by portable desks.

But in 1967 he began a separate service of translating financial reports into easy-to-comprehend graphs and charts.

"I was forced into getting into the graphic design business," Mr. Widener says."The president of Hoffmann-la Roche called me up and said I'd designed a beautiful room. 'We love the slide system and thedecor,' he said, 'except we're putting accounting reports on the screen, and that doesn't make any sense. I'm not going to pay for this until you put something on the screen that's better than accounting reports.'" That something was business charts -- at first made manually, but now done with speed by CompuChrome.

When a business is interested in Interlink's services, Widener sits down with the managers and reviews their reports. At Banamex, "there were roughly 2,000 pages of tabular information produced a month. It became a bulky book," he says. Interlink spent about a year and a half suggesting graph formats and equipment. After everything was installed the executives tried it out and had a few adjustments made. Widener says the system enables meetings that used to last three hours to take place in 40 minutes.

Because of the decreasing cost of computers, CompuChrome now costs about $100 ,000. When it first came out it went for $400,000. Though competition in computer graphics is tough -- with such giants as IBM and Hewlett-Packard active in the business -- Widener plans to go back to his precomputer graphics clients with the CompuChrome. In the past he's dealt mainly with major banks, Fortune 500 companies, and the federal government.

They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. So take your pick, 1,00 words or

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